Crunch cooking
Published:  09 January, 2009

Shoppers are starting to place economy and value ahead of premium and clean-label when it comes to their weekly shop. Carina Perkins reports on how suppliers are responding.

In the US, calls of “Spam, Spam sausage, egg and Spam” can be heard in cafes across the nation. This is no ironic nod to the comic genius of Monty Python, sales of Hormel’s canned meat have gone through the roof in recent months because recession-hit consumers are desperately trying to keep some sort of meat on the table.

Indeed, nothing quite epitomises the dramatic impact that an economic crisis can have on food consumption like Spam – a canned, glutinous mix of pork, ham, sugar, salt, water, potato starch and sodium nitrite. When times are tight, concerns about healthy nutrition go out the window – people want their food to be cheap, comforting and long-lasting.

So what impact will the recession have on the ingredients sector in the UK, which for the last few years has been characterised by a clean-label revolution and demand for natural, ‘store-cupboard’ ingredients?

Will UK consumers once more embrace value-for-money, processed foods like Spam? Or will concerns about health and quality prevail?

Indulgence has been a driving force in the ingredients sector for several years and encapsulates the demand for premium, authentic, luxury and organic foods.

According to Peter van Cotthem, general manager at spice and sauce manufacturer Verstegen, indulgence continued to influence the ingredients sector last year, despite the growing financial crisis. “We experienced a strong demand for superior quality raw ingredients and equally an interest in the provenance of our spices throughout 2008,” he says.


Trading down

Research suggests, however, that things are starting to change. According to market intelligence experts Mintel, consumers were in denial for the first half of 2008, spending more than they did in 2007 despite growing evidence of a downturn in the economy. In the second half of the year, however, reality started to set in and people’s shopping habits started to change dramatically. In the 12 months leading up to September 2008, 41% of consumers switched to cheaper brands and 31% cut down on premium ranges.

“It is clear that shoppers are now really feeling the pinch and beginning to trade down when out buying food,” explains Richard Perks, director of retail research at Mintel. “During the recent years of unprecedented prosperity in Britain, we saw a very noticeable shift towards premium, upmarket food, with shoppers buying more luxurious ready meals and exotic produce. But in the space of just a few months, this trend has already started to be reversed.”

With economy suddenly the major driving factor behind consumer choice, supermarkets have embarked on a price war, clamouring to offer the best deals and cheapest food. As a result, manufacturers have been forced to reduce production costs in all areas, including ingredients.

According to Richard Eden, business development director at ingredients manufacturer Fibrisol, clean-label ingredients are still popular for premium ranges, but there has been an increase in the use of cheaper traditional ingredients in standard ranges. “The clean-label movement is still happening, but it has taken a bit of a hit. Pressure from heavy discounters like Aldi and Lidl means that supermarkets are looking for more competitive products and we are seeing ingredients such as phosphates going back into mid-priced products to improve shelf-life and bring costs down,” he explains.

“There is still a keenness to have clean labels but necessity has taken over and there is a requirement to reduce costs now because people do not want to spend as much on premium food – they just want to be able to feed their family.”


Healthy habits

The health movement has been another major driver in the ingredients sector, but unlike indulgence it does not stem from consumer demand. “Healthy eating is still an important driver but this doesn’t actually reflect in sales performance,” says van Cotthem. “Health might be on everybody’s lips, but it still only appeals to a small section of the buying public.”

Health is a government-led trend and manufacturers are being forced to reduce fat and salt levels in their food in order to meet state-set targets designed to combat growing levels of obesity and heart disease in the UK. It is unlikely that the recession will have much of an impact on health trends, with the government keen to ensure its population remains healthy through difficult economic times.

The reduction of salt is a key issue in the health movement. A high salt intake is thought to increase blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD). CVD is responsible for 50% of deaths in Europe and is reported to cost the EU economy an estimated €169bn a year.

In an attempt to reduce heart-related illness, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has set a target to reduce the salt intake of the population to 6g per person per day by 2010. It recently embarked on a review of progress made towards that goal and has released several proposals for public consultation including stricter salt-reduction targets for bacon, ham and cured meats, sausages and meat pies.

Removing salt from processed foods is no easy process, but manufacturers have been working to find alternatives. In September last year, a group of scientists claimed to have found a salt-replacement ingredient which would “revolutionise the food industry.” During a research project at Sheffield Hallam University, the scientists discovered that seaweed granules can be used as a natural alternative to traditional sodium chloride without affecting taste or shelf-life.

“Our research found that as well as maintaining the taste of the food, the seaweed granules reduce the numbers of certain micro-organisms, thereby helping to lengthen its shelf-life in a similar way to salt,” explains Dr. Andrew Fairclough, lead researcher on the project from Sheffield Hallam University’s Food Innovation team.


Fat Function

Fat is another area of government concern. The FSA has established that “the current population’s average intake of saturated fat exceeds public health recommendations and raises serious health concerns in relation to heart disease and stroke.” As a result, it has embarked on a Saturated Fat and Energy Intake Programme, with a key aim of reducing the average intake of saturated fat from the current level of 13.3% to below 11% of food energy intake by 2010.

As Antje Baumgarten, marketing manager of textural innovation at National Starch Food Innovation, explains, reducing fat in meat products is not always easy. “Adding or replacing ingredients affects texture and the way consumers perceive quality, aroma and taste,” she says. “For example, fat plays a key role in creating a desirable ‘mouth-feel’ in sausages and taking away this component can make the product tough, dry and bland.”

Functional ingredients manufacturers have therefore invested a lot of time and effort into developing fat-replacers, such as speciality starches derived from potato, which mimic the mouth-feel of fat. “These ingredients can provide meat’s tender initial bite and chewy succulence while eating and can also offer the prerequisite mouth-feel and ‘melt-away’ desired in different dishes,” explains Baumgarten.


EU influence

The race to genuinely reduce fat and salt in food is likely to intensify over the next few years, with the European Health and Nutrition Claims Regulation due to be extended to all food manufacturers by 2010. The law, which came into force on July 2007, imposes stricter rules over health claims made in the labelling and advertising of food.

For example low-fat claims will only be permitted if the product contains no more than 3g of fat per 100g for solids or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids and only firms making 25% reductions in salt will be allowed to make reduced salt claims on pack. Manufacturers have been given until January 2010 to amend claims or re-formulate products.

Looking to the year ahead, Eden predicts that 2009 will be dominated by economic factors. The move to economise does not necessarily mean that people will accept a poor eating quality, however. “The difference now is that people don’t want to eat rubbish. They want a cheaper product but they do not want to compromise too much,” he says. “There is a lot of work to be done in the ingredients sector on keeping up the quality experience while enabling economy food to be produced.”

With some consumers still demanding quality and a government demanding health, it is unlikely that the UK will completely abandon the movement towards clean-label. But rising food costs, redundancies and the collapse of the pound means manufacturers will be under increasing pressure to reduce prices and many consumers will be forced to trade down. Spam, Spam, Spam baked beans and Spam anyone?